A Life of John Graunt

by Ed Stephan

John Graunt was born between seven and eight o'clock, the morning of 24 April 1620, apparently the eldest of seven or eight children. He was christened a week later at St. Michael, Cornhill. His father Henry was a draper who had moved to London from Hampshire; his mother was named Mary.

He was educated in English, then apprenticed (1636-41) at age sixteen to his father's profession, haberdasher of small wares (the OED suggests this meant, at that time, he sold women's notions). He taught himself Latin and French by studying mornings before shop-time. He conducted his business at the sign of the Seven Stars in Birchin Lane, London. In February 1641 he married Mary Scott, who apparently bore him one son and three daughters. According to Aubrey the son grew to manhood and died in Persia, and one of the daughters became a nun.

He did well in business. By the time of the Great Fire (1666) he had become "an opulent merchant of London, of great weight and consideration in the city." He was known as a great peacemaker and was often chosen an arbitrator between disputing merchants. Before reaching his thirtieth birthday, he had sufficient influence to secure for his friend William Petty the professorship of music at Gresham College. He held several offices in the Drapers' Company: a Freeman ("by Patrimony") at 21, granted the Livery of the Company at 38, and risen to the distinguished position of Renter Warden by age 50. He went through the typical ward offices of the city and was elected to the Common Council, bearing that office for two years. He was Foreman of the Wardmote inquest, 1669-70, and he held the rank of Captain of the Trained Band in the London militia for several years, holding the rank of major two or three years more. Somewhere near the end of his life he was a Governor in the New River Company; he was a trustee for Sir William Backhouse in that company. At some point he was employed by (James Butler, Duke of) Ormond to recruit Walloon weavers living near Canterbury and to settle them in Ireland.

He had a well developed interest in art. He was a friend of the miniaturist Samuel Cooper and of the portrait painter John Hayls (Hales). He was also an important collector. Samuel Pepys' diary describes his prints as "indeed the best collection of anything almost that ever I saw, there being the prints of most of the greatest houses, churches and antiquitys in Italy and France, and brave cutts". The diarist, who knew him well, considered Graunt's "most excellent discourses well worth hearing". And, though he lacked classical education and had no more mathematics than would any businessman of his day, the famous book-collector Richard Smith esteemed him "an understanding man of quick wit and a pretty schollar". Anthony a-Wood wrote that "his excellent working head ... is very rare in a trader or mechanic".

The preface to his Observations on the Bills of Mortality  is dated 25 January 1662. He speaks lightly of his original interest in the bills: "having (I know not by what accident) engaged my thoughts", though in the 3rd edition, after his reputation had been established, he speaks of his "long and serious perusal of all the bills." Pepys bought a copy of the Observations  at Westminster Hall before they had been in print two months. A second London edition was published within the year, and three more followed (London 1665, Oxford 1665, London 1676).

5 February 1662 Graunt presented fifty copies of his Observations  to Dr. Whistler of the "Society of Philosophers meeting at Gresham Colledg" (the Royal Society). The epistle dedicatory to their President, Robert Moray, was read, Graunt was voted thanks and proposed as a candidate for admission. Society historian, Bishop Sprat, noted that Graunt's admission was recommended by King Charles II himself, adding that "in his election it was so far from being a prejudice that he was a shopkeeper of London, that His Majesty gave this particular charge to His Society, that if they found any more such tradesmen, they should be sure to admit them all, without any more ado."

The Society did, however, on 12 February, go through the formality of convening a committee (Sir William Petty, and Drs. Needham, Wilkins, Goddard, Whistler, and Ent) to look into Graunt's book. On 26 February he was elected a fellow. In spite of his having said in the letter to Moray that he had no interest in becoming a member, he immediately accepted, subscribing at the next meeting of the Society. He attended meetings frequently for five years and served on several of its committees. He was a member of the Council of the Society 30 November 1664 to 11 April 1666.

He converted from Protestantism (Puritan) to antiTrinitarianism (Unitarian)[1] and was apparently very devout, taking down the sermons in shorthand. His conversion to Roman Catholicism may have predated the Great Fire, or may even have been caused by it. In any case, it forced him to resign his civil and military positions and subjected him to serious legal harassment. The Fire took his house, and his business appears to have suffered greatly from that time onward. Though his house was rebuilt with Petty's help, it passed to Petty and Graunt moved into Bolt Court in the parish of St. Dunstan-in-the-West, Fleet Street. In spite of assistance from Petty, he remained in difficult circumstances until his death in poverty, after which the Drapers' Company allowed his widow a pension of £4 "on account of her low condition."

John Graunt died 18 April 1674 of jaundice. He was buried at St. Dunstan's Church (the exact location, under some pews is given by Aubrey who comments "what pitty 'tis so great an Ornament of the City should be buryed so obscurely"; the rebuilding of the church on a different site in 1930 has made it even more obscure). According to Smith's obituary, "A great number of ingeniose persons attended him to his grave. Among others, with teares, was that great ingeniose virtuoso, Sir William Petty." His contemporary John Aubrey, (Brief Lives),  who found him "a pleasant facetious companion and very hospitable," noted that his death was "lamented by all good men that had the happinesse to knowe him."


There is an interesting afterward, the last paragraph of Aubrey's biography of Petty:

Sir William Petty had a boy that whistled incomparably well. He after waited on a lady, a widow, of good fortune. Every night this boy was to whistle his lady asleep. At last she could hold out no longer, but bids her chamber-maid withdraw: bids him come to bed, sets him to work, and marries him the next day. This is certain true; from himself and Mrs Grant.
Aubrey refers earlier in this same work to Capt. J. Grant [sic]. Could the widow be?!?!!

principal sources: Charles Henry Hull, The Economic Writings of Sir William Petty  (New York:Augustus Kelley), 1963: pp xxxiv-xxxviii; Frank N. Egerton III, "John Graunt", in Charles Gillispie (ed.) Dictionary of Scientific Biography  (New York:Charles Scribner's), 1972: pp 506-508. If you have other info which should be added, please contact me.


[1] Aubrey says he was Calvinist, then became a Socinian. This was a sect founded by 16h century Italian theologians Lælius and Faustus Socinus; they denied the divinity of Christ.

Stephan Graunt